John McAslan is chastising someone on the telephone for letting him down. He does this in a calm, reasonable, if slightly perplexed manner. 'You may be used to people who try to rip you off,' he says to his invisible interlocutor, 'but we're dead straightforward here. There is no other agenda.'
He is right. The McAslan practice is dead straightforward, and possibly underrated, as a result. They sit in their white, airy office in a 1960s block in Notting Hill - well away from architectural enclaves such as Clerkenwell or Camden - producing fine, expressive, intelligent buildings. There is so much work on that the studio space - which got to look very big and empty during the recession - now seems small, and brim-full. But the boss is never satisfied. Never has been. He always wants things to be just slightly different from the way they are. This is how he got into dealing with historic buildings and sensitive contexts. It is hard to imagine anyone in architecture striving harder to get what he wants. The former partnership of Troughton McAslan was the only uk practice to contribute a building to the first phase of Canary Wharf in the late 1980s, for instance. While still disgracefully young, it was building a uk headquarters for Apple Computers in the fledgling Stockley Park, a station at Redhill, a 'moderne' apartment tower on the river. Then the recession hit and the work slowed up. Typically, McAslan launched himself into a campaign to adapt abandoned industrial buildings (much loved since his childhood), drawing up a roster of examples from around the uk and presenting them to the government in an attempt to get some projects kick-started. Nothing much came of this directly for the practice - although a number of the buildings on the roster have been subsequently tackled by others, like the Luma Factory in Glasgow and Hunslet Mills in Leeds. However, by then he had his teeth into other remodelling work: Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, for instance, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Florida Southern College (Wright's largest group of work on one site), both long-term projects.
Florida is a particularly fine example of the way McAslan makes work. He came across the crumbling campus on holiday, when driving south from Baltimore to the Keys on a trip which centred on criss-crossing the industrial landscape in Virginia, immortalised in the 1950s photography of Winston Link. He discovered nobody was doing much about the Wright campus, got to see the director, drew up some proposals, garnered support and funding, and eventually real commissions started to flow.
The present task is for the extensive reworking of Wright's Polk County Science building to bring it up to 21st-century standards. A $10 million project, with Arup's New York office on site, it's due for completion in phases from late this year. But how come a Scottish architect from Notting Hill landed it? 'I never thought we could work in the States,' says McAslan, 'but we are really quite good at unlocking projects. We seem to be able to cut through apparent obstacles to get things done.'
Exactly the same process is now taking place in the Moroccan world heritage site of Volubilis near Fez. Another trip, another architectural opportunity unlocked. The ruins of this Roman city (the finest in North Africa) are reasonably well known, but the site is largely unexplained. So McAslan went to see the officials in charge, pulled out the sketchbook, and is now working up designs for a delicate visitor centre of lightweight vaults, developing a site
signage system; 'creating public archaeology' as he puts it, and supporting a programme for the excavation of the site's post-Roman quarter - so far, with time the practice is donating to the project. But knowing him, you know he'll get the job. As he says: 'I imagine that in five years or so, something will be built there. I'll be as patient as I need to be. I couldn't resist the opportunity of working on a site like this. It's probably a better use of our time than trying to get involved at Stonehenge'.
By the mid-1990s, the received image of McAslan had moved from being a bright young business-park architect to being a rigorous Modernist with a flair for historic settings. So he got to masterplan the characterful rabbit warren of the Grade I Adam-designed Royal Society of Arts, and radically remodelled the Great Room
lecture theatre. Then he won the competition to transform London's Roundhouse into an arts and education venue for the enigmatic Torquil Norman, succeeding where so many had failed. Another competition win brought him the task of turning Charles Rennie Mackintosh's major surviving English commission, 78 Derngate in Northampton and adjoining houses, into a 'living' museum and education centre. Work starts next year.
Part of his secret is to be unintimidated by history and reputation. He's not frightened of adapting the Polk building, he says with characteristic directness, 'because it's not, in itself, a particularly great building by Wright. It's the whole site that's unique'. At the Roundhouse and Derngate, in contrast, his approach is to reveal the existing architecture by separating much of the new accommodation - a recurrent theme in many other projects. A glazed external drum and new internal high-level platform perform these tasks in the Roundhouse, while at Derngate everything new stands well clear of the tiny, jewel-like Mackintosh house, and circulation through the new complex is controlled by a new glazed cube to the rear of the adjacent houses. 'In these projects,' says McAslan, 'you have to love the building you're working with, to unlock what's been lost and to express yourself through intervention.'
In 1996, Troughton McAslan became John McAslan & Partners, with Jamie Troughton leaving, although the two remain very much in contact. In a further upheaval last year, two senior directors left to start their own practice. This happened at a time of rapidly increasing workload, but McAslan has now re-shaped the practice with a group of seven younger associates: Martin Markcrow, Murray Smith, Adam Brown, Andrew Hapgood, Hiro Aso, systems manager Roger Wu and practice manager Rachel Smart. McAslan himself is still only 45. He was in his late twenties when he set up in practice after a spell training with Cambridge Seven in Boston and Richard Rogers in London. Today, however, the feel of the practice is slowly getting to be like the Cambridge Seven as McAslan remembers it, with the creative work increasingly shared with an able, younger, set of associates under McAslan's ever-present eye. 'You have to mature,' reflects McAslan. 'It's taken 15 years for me to feel relaxed in this environment, but things have begun to click into place in the studio. We've worked hard in the last few years to secure some really interesting projects which it thrills me to see develop.'
The biggest adaptation job by far in the office - so big that its project team of 15 is somewhat cuckoo-like in the 30-strong Notting Hill nest - is the £70 million reworking of the much-loved Peter Jones store, flagship of the John Lewis Partnership, in Sloane Square in London.
McAslan was first called in to produce a historic-structures report, which showed how many supposedly original parts of the store were, in fact, accretions over the years, and allowed considerable scope for expansion on what is a wholly landlocked site.
Getting plans approved took time, but he admits the negotiations (which he shared with the Partnership and planning consultant Paul Kentish from Savills) improved the scheme. More space is made on top, with the light
well raised to the full extended height of the building into a dramatic top-lit atrium. Plant is dealt with floor by floor,
freeing up roof space. The project has begun on site with advance works and will be completed in phases by 2003. Peter Jones is both a problem and an opportunity for McAslan. Since the external appearance and the best interior features of this pioneering building will change relatively little, 'nor should they,' he says, it will not in itself necessarily stamp the practice's name on the public imagination, although it will be well noted by commissioning clients. McAslan's success overseas - with the Kobe Institute in Japan, the Yapi Kredi Bank hq in Turkey, and now the on-site 45,000m2 Max Mara fashion group headquarters in Italy - has yet to be balanced by equivalently large-scale new-build projects in the uk.
Peter Jones has, however, given McAslan the confidence to explore larger scale projects to redress the balance here. One such is his first City office building, on a site occupied by the Salvation Army on Queen Victoria Street, close to St Paul's Cathedral. As usual there is no trickery, no meaningless architectural gesture. The design is wholly self-explanatory. Instead of the conventional big doughnut block with central atrium, the building consists of three linked pavilions animated by glazed 'streets' that traverse the block. Thus, something of the lost north-south urban grain of the area is reinstated and a range of lettable floorplates created. A facade of terracotta louvres (Renzo Piano-influenced, McAslan acknowledges) moderates the glazed frontage. It contrives to be both simple and sophisticated. Again, it is clear that McAslan is undaunted by the thought of doing a City building - indeed, he thinks the process of statutory negotiations is much clearer there than in many London boroughs, with an informed dialogue emerging with officers during the planning process.
Assuming the design is built, John McAslan & Partners will have clicked forward another gear. Such larger projects will provide a foil to the plethora of smaller jobs (relatively speaking - they are commissions of £1.5-£10 million) in historic settings that have now become a staple of the office's output. These include the scheme to extend the Whitechapel Art Gallery into the building alongside, or the new barrel-vaulted recital hall at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone, which has just received planning and listed consent. The negotiations on this one have been long, and the evening I go to interview McAslan the decision is to be made. Slightly edgy, he eventually disappears from the room to receive a call, and returns punching the air, letting out cowboy whoops of delight. Permission has been granted. He chuckles, and relaxes.
Kahn - like Piano a significant influence on the practice - resurfaces in a Kimbell-like contemporary art gallery proposal for Middlesbrough, currently at the feasibility stage. Middlesbrough then led to the Whitechapel project, and suddenly the practice has a vital toehold in gallery design, another string to its bow. The Royal Academy of Music project, along with another major scheme for a music school with the practice's recent commission to remodel the King Charles Building at Greenwich for Trinity College of Music (a Scheduled Ancient Monument on a world heritage site), extensions for London University's academically excellent School of Oriental and African Studies (soas) and recent work at Imperial College, are examples of how adept McAslan has become at weaving new architecture into existing settings, of making usable space out of left-over space.
The challenge at soas was to tackle the existing context (which includes Denys Lasdun's 1970s library) and connect it to the nearby Holden building. The series of additions McAslan proposes sets light, glassy architecture against the mass of the two other buildings, yielding a vital extra 4500m2 of space. It is needed: Lasdun's building, designed for a student population of 1000, is now overrun by 3000. The technique, as usual, is to pull the new accommodation clear of the existing structures, leaving them intact. Even so, the project set a precedent: the Lasdun building is not listed, but presumably might be at some point in the near future. Rather than try to obtain immunity from listing, McAslan and soas took the course of negotiating with planners and English Heritage on a listed-building basis and regularly consulting with Lasdun, modifying the plans as a result, asking 'If this building were listed, would you approve these plans?' Such anticipatory architecture is not unknown, but it is rare, and adds to the unconventional nature of the whole commission.
The Royal Academy of Music project is another exercise in stitching elements of an organisation together. Here the link is underground, but toplit, between a restrained Nash building and the high Edwardian composition of the main Academy. The new rehearsal hall will be sunk in the courtyard between the two, its semicircular vault appearing above ground, in precast concrete and patinated zinc with glazed ends somewhat reminiscent of Pierre Chareau's studio for Robert Motherwell on Long Island.
Other projects complete this surprisingly diverse tally of McAslan work in historic contexts. An Underground station remodelling at High Street Kensington began as a 'congestion-relief study' and is developing as an architectural commission. The new design opens out the old station, reinstates long-abandoned exits, and provides a new interpretation of the high 19th- century open-vault roofs common to this branch of the cut-and-cover District Line. It recalls the 'Peckham Arch' McAslan designed some years ago as an entrance to a new cultural quarter.
A similar planning logic applies to the new headquarters for publisher Thames and Hudson, where a very ordinary 1930s warehouse building was stripped to its essentials, with voids punched through its floor slabs to provide intercommunication, and a spare, industrial aesthetic employed in the new spaces. As an exercise in redefining the character of this publisher, it has been invaluable. Previously the firm was dispersed across three separate Georgian buildings.
John McAslan & Partners has doubled in size over the past year. There are more than 20 live projects on hand. As usual, the gaffer is fretting slightly about the situation he finds himself in. Is the firm taking its architecture forward in the consistent way it should be? He certainly does not want to get sucked down the road of endless economic growth, with the need to pull in ever more and more projects just to feed the mouths of the employees. 'But I love our increasing scale and to see the practice developing.' He admires much of what he sees happening in Europe and here by younger practices such as Ian Ritchie, Sauerbruch Hutton, David Chipperfield, which do what he likes doing - 'pulling out a project and crafting it'. He adds: 'The idea of us occupying the safe middle ground is anathema to me. I'd rather be dead. We must never occupy that ground. If we do, or if I ever give off a hint of smugness, please hit me.'